Cyrinus B. McClellan

Cyrinus B. McClellan settled in Virginia City at the height of the Comstock mining era. A versatile artist from Northern California, McClellan established himself as a portrait painter. He moved his studio between the Comstock, Carson City, and Reno, all the while serving his clients with portraits, panoramic landscapes, and historic scenes as well as signs. "Reno Twenty Years Ago," a painting that depicts Reno founder Myron Lake standing before a Truckee River toll bridge, hangs in the restored Lake Mansion in Reno, now the home of VSA Arts of Nevada. The Nevada Historical Society in Reno houses a number of the artist's paintings.

Below is reprinted with permission from the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly.

Nevada Historical Society Quarterly
Volume 33, Summer 1990, Number 2
Richard C. Datin


Cyrinus C. McClellan, an artist not likely to elicit much enthusiasm from art historians and critics these days, was Nevada's most prolific artist beginning in the 1860s. "Counting portraits and all there must be hundreds, if not thousands of his pictures in this State and California," recalled Virginia City's Territorial Enterprise years later. [1]  "A most ardent lover of art," "a soul of honor," and "a true artist" were among the many accolades bestowed on this popular craftsman whose venue encompassed Virginia City, Reno, and Carson City. [2]  It became a different story during McClellan's twilight years. The Comstock declined, and times grew tougher for the acclaimed artist as people waived the luxury of costly portraiture. He moved to Reno, where his health failed in 1883, at about the age of fifty-six.

While a few of his works remain to document his artistic endeavors, most of McClellan's canvases have vanished, been destroyed, or simply gone unnoticed, partly because of the absence of a signature. Mac, as he was referred to by one contemporary newspaper, didn't limit himself to portraits. He was also known to have created many stylish pictures, pen-and-ink sketches, and landscapes, as well as figure pieces. A quiet and modest man of many talents, he was lauded by Carson City's Daily Appeal: "We know of no portrait painter on this coast who is his equal." [3] Today, Cyrinus B. McClellan is virtually unknown.

Before joining the 1860s rush to the Comstock, McClellan was widely respected in California, having lived many years at Marysville, Sacramento, and San Francisco, as well as in Forest City and Downieville. Considered a "pioneer in his profession," McClellan's initial sojourn in Nevada began at Virginia City. [4] During his residency at 9 North C Street, McClellan portrayed a goodly number of Comstock citizens and "never failed in any instance to produce excellent and striking likenesses, whether his subject may have been of mature age or a mere infant." [5] His paintings were so lifelike that George Gibson's portrait prompted the Reno Crescent to declare, "You would swear, to look at it, that the old fellow held four aces in a game of draw [poker]." [6]

Desiring a change of scenery, McClellan packed his palette and brushes and moved to Carson City in July 1870, where he established a studio in Sweeney's Building on King Street. No sooner had he settled but Messrs. Moore and Parker called upon him to paint the drop curtain and other scenery for their newly remodeled Carson Theatre. Other commissions included "a surprisingly correct and lifelike portrait of the late [Ormsby County sheriff] T. G. Smith" [7] derived from another medium–a daguerreotype. His life-size portrait of Senator James W. Nye, completed late in 1870, apparently caused a curious difficulty or two. Originally presented to Nye's daughter, Mrs. Mary W. Waller of New York, it ended up adorning the office of the Nevada secretary of state some six months later. Surrounded by a magnificent gilt frame, the old Grey Eagle was such a "splendid likeness ... that the tears he is wont to shed on some occasions appear to be trembling in the corners of his eyes." [8] McClellan offered the work for sale, but it was evident that Nye's reputation as a "political carpet-bagger" [9] did little to attract buyers. Aaron Treadway [10] saved the day by purchasing the portrait of the former territorial governor. "Long may he hang there, a memento [sic] of fallen greatness," concluded one Reno paper.11

The booming town of Reno drew McClellan to set up shop some time later that year. While the Reno Crescent gave space to a dispute over the merits of soaps manufactured in Reno versus those from Carson City, McClellan was painting portraits, including one of his recent Carson City benefactor Treadway, which characteristically lacked only "the hand behind the ear and that new straw hat on the head." [12] Proving his versatility as an artist, McClellan finished a store sign for Charley Friend and his business partner, W. W. Haskell. One side displayed Haskell's books, toys, paper, cigars, etcetera, while Charley's side pictured his stock, including chronometers, watches, steam engines, jewelry, guns, pistols, and so forth. [13]

In 1872 McClellan moved back to Virginia City. A Territorial Enterprise reporter, possibly Dan DeQuille, enlightened his readers with this wonderful detailed glimpse of McClellan:

His studio is picturesquely situated on North Howard Street. From his door he has a fine view of the wild stretch of mountains and deserts reaching away over a hundred miles to the eastward from the foot of Mount Davidson. We found the artist at home and surrounded by a score or more of portraits of all sizes and kinds. [14] Some of these were finished and others lacked but a few finished touches. In two or three days all will be completed, when another lot of a dozen or more will be started and driven through in a flock. This, Mr. McClellan says, is his method of working. He has a number of pictures on hand at the same time and goes from one to another during the day, keeping them all about so far advanced. [15]

McClellan luxuriated in his success, according to one newspaper account:

Open-handed and generous, he cast his earnings about among all who chose to partake of his hospitality, which never knew any limit so long as he had money in his pocket. He had an elegant suite of rooms on B Street, and no sideboard was more lavishly stocked with costly liquors and cigars. His studio was a sort of club room for Mac's friends and was generally filled. [16]

Virginia City's disastrous fire of 1875 abruptly ended the good times. Most of McClellan's pictures, sketches, and all the "traps and calamities" accumulated during his lifetime as an artist lay in the ashes. The Carson Daily Appeal said it was "pretty hard on the old man, but he looks cheerful under his afflictions." [17] Picking up the pieces of his profession, McClellan headed for Carson City in December and opened a studio above the offices of the Daily Appeal on East Second Street.

During the next few years McClellan moved between Carson City and Virginia City, all the while producing a prodigious quantity of canvases. Among those mentioned in the newspapers were portraits of Dr. A. S. Means of the Virginia City Chapter of the Pacific Coast Pioneers; Charles E. DeLong, Virginia City lawyer and later minister to Japan; and future Governor John H. Kinkead. Also noted are an historic scene of the discovery of silver in Nevada with O'Riley, McLaughlin, and Comstock, and a faithfully executed set of four 36-by-56-inch panoramic views of the Comstock from Virginia City to Gold Hill, painted for Virginia City's fraternal Washoe Club. [18]

As the 1880s dawned, the exciting days of the Big Bonanza were history. The Comstock's declining economy seriously affected McClellan as clients became less plentiful. "Still Mac clung to the old ledge," reported the Carson Daily Appeal, "and in the midst of hard luck and poverty kept the warm side of his heart toward everybody and maintained a cheerfulness that no circumstances could blight." [19] To sustain himself, McClellan at times resorted to auctioning a large variety of battle and hunting scenes, landscapes, portraits of Civil War generals, a spectacular view of Gold Hill, and so forth. [20] Even the popularity of Generals Grant and Sheridan failed to bring prices high enough to cover the cost of their frames. But McClellan "went on painting, and when he could not sell pictures, he gave them away." [21]

McClellan decided that prospects were far better in Reno and settled there during the summer of 1881. Among the illustrations completed in his studio on Commercial Row [22] during this period were one of the famed Lightning Express train in the moonlit Truckee River canyon, a group of Nevada Indians, and a portrait of the recently assassinated President James Garfield. [23]

The one painting for which McClellan will be long remembered is Reno Twenty Years Ago, with pioneer Myron C. Lake posing alongside Chief Winnemucca and several other Native Americans near Lake's house and bridge next to the Truckee River. It began late in 1881 as a simple sketch of Reno as it had looked twenty years earlier. The Reno Evening Gazette suggested that "M. C. Lake ought to have a painting from the sketch. It would make a fine companion piece for Reno as it appears today." [24] With his health failing, the fifty-five-year-old pioneer heeded those words and completed Reno Twenty Years Ago before 1882 ended. To benefit the ailing artist, H. L. W. Knox of the Lake House organized a raffle for the artwork in February of 1883. James Loughlin, foreman of the Reno Evening Gazette press room, held the winning ticket, but before he could enjoy the prize his employer recommended publicly that "M.C. Lake ought to purchase it and donate it to some society, in order that it may be preserved." [25]

The historic illustration of Lake's crossing may have been the artist's last effort. After suffering for months, C. B. McClellan quietly succumbed in his second-floor Commercial Row studio lodgings on the morning of October 1, 1883. His most famous work, Reno Twenty Years Ago, subsequently passed through a number of hands. For some time the three-by-four-foot scene had been exhibited by then owner Richard Salter in Herman Thyes's saloon on Commercial Row. It was priced at $50, but no one seemed to want what was considered one of McClellan's best works until Salter ordered the elegantly framed oil to be packed and shipped to his home in Pasadena, California. Upon hearing of this, Myron Lake's son-in-law William Thompson stepped in to purchase the important work in July of 1887. [26] Since then Reno Twenty Years Ago has remained in Reno's pioneer Thompson family, [27] as a fine example of Nevada's most prolific artist.

1. Territorial Enterprise. 3 October 1883.
2. Carson Daily Appeal, 30 July 1870; 3 October 1883.
3. Ibid., 2 August 1870.
4. Territorial Enterprise, 3 October 1883.
5. Ibid., 30 July 1870.
6. Reno Crescent, 13 May 1871.
7. Carson Daily Appeal, 6 October 1870.
8. The (Carson City) Daily State Register, 2 July 1871.
9. Reno Crescent, 25 November 1871.
10. The likable "Farmer" Treadway operated Carson City's popular picnic park.
11. Reno Crescent, 30 December 1871.
12. Ibid., 26 August 1871.
13. Ibid., 11 November 1871.
14. Among the people portrayed were John James, brother of Virginia & Truckee surveyor 1. E. James; Mrs. F. A. Tritle; and the father of George D. Fryer, owner of Carson City's Ormsby House. It seems that most of McClellan's works were executed by commission, while others, including many portraits of well-known personalities, were completed on speculation and offered for sale to state and county governments. A number of notable citizens of Washoe, Ormsby, and Storey counties were subjects of McClellan's brush, to say nothing of their relatives and offspring. A good example was McClellan's 1876 portrait of Captain Edward Storey, from whom Storey County received its name. More than eighteen months elapsed before the Storey County Commissioners moved to purchase it for the courthouse (Carson Daily Appeal, 16 March 1876; Territorial Enterprise, 7 November 1877). The portraits of John James and Edward Storey are now located at the Nevada Historical Society in Reno.
15. Territorial Enterprise, 11 April 1875.
16. Carson Daily Appeal, 3 October 1883.

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